Azita Rafat sits near her parliamentary campaign poster in 2005. As a young girl, the onetime lawmaker was a bacha posh: Her family designated her as an honorary son, and let her dress and live as a boy. Most bacha posh “switch back” to being girls in adolescence, and for many the transition is difficult (Caren Firouz /Reuters)

Since the U.S. entry into Afghanistan in 2001, the idea of “saving” Afghan women has been used by politicians and the media as a justification for war. Invoking images of women brutalized by the Taliban, commentators and pundits have argued that one byproduct of international involvement would be a safer world for the women of this war-torn country.

Thirteen years into the conflict, Swedish journalist Jenny Nordberg has produced a striking and nuanced work that explores the current status of Afghan women through one of their subcultures. “The Underground Girls of Kabul” does not seek out the stereotypically oppressed, burka-clad woman in need of a savior, but rather shows Afghan women as active agents navigating a culture that often disadvantages them and making the most of their limited options for freedom and autonomy.

Nordberg’s specific focus is on girls and women known as bacha posh, a term that literally means “dressed up as a boy,” but bacha posh serve as an entry point into a rich exploration of women’s lives in contemporary Afghanistan. Families who have not succeeded in conceiving boys will designate young girls as honorary sons, allowing them to roam freely and masquerade as boys, with the tacit acceptance of others in their communities. At adolescence, most are switched back to young women, a transformation that can be traumatic for those accustomed to their assumed male identities. A few, such as Shahed, a woman in her late 20s who was trained by the Americans to serve as a paramilitary sharpshooter, maintain their bacha posh status, eschewing traditional expectations that they marry and bear children. “Some women are braver and stronger than men. I am a warrior,” Shahed tells the author.

Azita, a former parliamentarian whose life Nordberg explores in great detail, is a contrasting case. The mother of a bacha posh, Azita was formerly one herself. Well educated, raised in the cosmopolitan Kabul of the 1980s by a progressive father who had ties to the Russians, Azita represents both the promise and peril of Afghan women’s lives. Throughout most of the book, she is riding high on her success as a politician, but her marriage — to a cousin from her ancestral village who is not only abusive but also has another wife — is shaky. As a politician, she dreams of creating a better Afghanistan for her daughters, and the uphill battle she fights is one of the book’s most compelling stories.

The reasons families allow their daughters to pass for boys are varied. A widely shared cultural belief is that families that have only daughters can raise their chances of conceiving a son by allowing one of their daughters to masquerade as a boy. Afghan society pities the family with no sons, and pretending to have at least one lessens the stigma of having none. Sons represent security, “insurance. A 401(k). A bank.” In a land whose recent history is one of “unemployment, poverty, and constant war,” tribal social organization, with its incumbent patriarchal traditions, offers more stability than governments that come and go.

Afghan culture has traditionally accepted bacha posh, and the more families Nordberg interviews, the more examples she uncovers. Some former bacha posh were comfortable reverting to the female gender, yet for many of them the transition was a difficult one. “I had to change my thoughts and everything inside my mind,” said Shukria, an anesthesiology nurse with three children.

If bacha posh are made rather than born, what explains the desire some of them have to remain in a male identity, risking not only cultural stigma but also potential violence? Nordberg raises a number of intriguing questions about the processes of gender-identity formation in other cultures, using a range of historical and anthropological sources to describe similar practices elsewhere. Throughout the book, she expertly mediates her presence among her subjects, never coming across as either judgmental or superior.

Nordberg is critical of international aid organizations’ hubris in purporting to be able to solve Afghanistan’s problems. If Afghanistan has been known as “the Graveyard of Empires,” she suggests, “in our time, it may also be called ‘the Playground of Foreign Aid Experimentation.’­ ” From 2006 to 2011, development aid from countries and multilateral organizations amounted to more than $30 billion, with limited results, much of the funds fueling “mismanagement and corruption.” In a single year, there were more than 700 projects dedicated to girls and women, yet these focused predominantly on women in urban areas, with barely measurable results that are likely to be reversed in the event of a Taliban return to power. Supposedly successful initiatives in education boast impressive numbers of students registered, but “half of Afghanistan’s newly created schools have no actual buildings, many lack teachers, most students never graduate, and one-fifth of the registered students are permanently absent.”

Despite the failure of war and foreign aid to significantly improve the lives of the majority of Afghanistan’s women, the current political climate has at least permitted a temporary space for girls like the bacha posh to carve out identities for themselves. After reading this finely written book, readers will have a much greater sense of what’s at stake for Afghanistan’s women in the event that the Taliban returns to power. In recent history Afghan women are not just an “issue,” Nordberg writes, but “at the very core of conflict.” There are no easy answers, but gaining a sense of Afghan women’s struggles through a study of those who seek to escape their gender offers an unforgettable perspective on the complexities of their lives.

Rachel Newcomb is an associate professor of anthropology at Rollins College and the author of “Women of Fes: Ambiguities of Urban Life in Morocco.”

THE UNDERGROUND
GIRLS OF KABUL

In Search of a Hidden
Resistance in Afghanistan

By Jenny Nordberg

Crown. 350 pp. $25